The views of experts and health professionals on whether there is cause for concern as COVID case numbers are rising again, the risk of a new variant to show up, the situation in schools and long COVID.


First published in March 2022.


Question: THE UK GOVERNMENT HAS ABANDONED PUBLIC HEALTH PROTECTIONS, CASE NUMBERS ARE NOW RISING AGAIN, BUT THERE IS NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN?

The UK Government has totally abandoned public health protections and case numbers are now rising again.

💬
“Our level of concern hasn’t changed. Although the case numbers are rising, infections are rising, and indeed hospital numbers are rising, they are still way below their peak. Taking all that into account, of course, we keep the data under review, but there’s no particular cause for concern at this point.”Sajid Javid, BBC1 Breakfast, 21 March 2022.

What the experts say...


Dr Zubaida Haque, Executive Director at The Equality Trust, former Interim Director of the Runnymede Trust, founding member of Independent SAGE:

This story about Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak ABANDONING public health protections on testing in the NHS and adult social care because there’s “no money” is absolutely shocking. Billions of our/taxpayer money was spent on Ministers’ friends, unfit PPE and test and trace consultants.

“And it’s not just the obvious vulnerable settings which will be deprived of funding for testing: places like schools, children’s homes, accommodation for asylum seekers, homeless shelters, immigration centres and prisons – places where outbreaks can happen will no longer be funded.

“And we need to be clear: when the government abandons free testing, self-isolation mandates for positive cases, and financial support for self-isolation, that’s NOT putting the economy first. It’s misunderstanding the link between economy and public health and abandoning vulnerable groups.”

— Source: Twitter.



Professor Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology, School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, Member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) subcommittee on behavioural science:

“When Sajid Javid says the spiking COVID numbers are no cause for concern or action, he is saying:
▫ 3.7 million CEV people exposed to greater risks don’t matter.
▫ 205,000 school pupils (+ 48,000 teachers) missing out on school don’t matter.
▫ 1.3 million people currently living with Long COVID and the 30% of people who get symptomatic infections who report ongoing symptoms that affect their everyday lives don’t matter.
▫ 1,000 people dying weekly don’t matter.
▫ Those whose operations are cancelled and care is postponed due to wards filling up with COVID patients don’t matter.
▫ The NHS staff who are exhausted and burnt out after two years of pandemic and a year of consistently high COVID loads don’t matter.

You have to show an awful lack of concern to an awful lot of people to conclude that the current COVID figures present no cause for concern, Sajid Javid.”

— Source: Twitter.



Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, UK Government’s Chief Medical Adviser and Head of the Public Health Profession:

“COVID cases are now rising quite rapidly – from quite a high base – and this is driven by a number of different factors, of which BA.2, the new Omicron variant is a large part. Rates are high and rising in virtually all parts of England.

“If we look at hospitalisations, there are now quite significant numbers of people in hospital. They are now rising again, and I think will continue to rise for at least the next two weeks – so there is pressure on the NHS.”

— Source: Annual Conference of the Local Government Association
and the Association of Directors of Public Health
.



Professor Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College London, Co-Founder of the ZOE COVID Study:

“As Zoe daily cases hit 330,000 – we see cases rising in all areas in all ages to record levels and super infectious omicron BA.2 now over 93 percent of U.K. cases.

“Hitting schools and hospitals again and still no public health messaging!

— Source: Twitter.



Dr Nisreen Alwan, Associate Professor in Public Health, University of Southampton. Public Health. Epidemiology:

“The narrative of “get back to normal” is actually not normal. We as humans have always modified our environments and behaviours to preserve health. That’s what’s normal, not calls to ditch every intervention known to reduce mass repeated infections with a novel and evolving virus.

“And yes, of course, health is not only about COVID. But COVID follows the same dynamic as almost every other health problem: it adversely affects the already disadvantaged and unheard more. Why should ‘normal’ mean compounding pre-pandemic problems with an additional one?

“Can we ALL at least agree on this one thing? Is this possible? Better ventilation of indoor spaces is NOT a ‘restriction’.”

— Source: Twitter & Twitter



Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London:

“This is nuts. 3.5 million people positive with SARS-CoV-2 in the last week in England. 1 in 16 people. In Scotland, this is 1 in 11. We are at the level of the infections at the previous omicron peak in England and have exceeded it in Scotland and Wales.

“And it is having consequences as predicted. Cases highest in primary school children (1 in 12), but rising in all age groups – which explains the rising hospitalisations and deaths.

“Please do protect yourselves where you can: high-grade masks, limiting indoor socialisation, ventilation can make a huge difference. Even if you are boosted, remember protection isn’t absolute against long COVID or severe disease and wanes over time, so important to take precautions.”

— Source: Twitter.



“Why keeping COVID-19 numbers in the community down matters – it adds to the pressures in hospitals, and clogs up the discharge pathway as outbreaks in care homes result in closures. COVID-19 is not over. Really need wider society to help keep infections down and out of healthcare settings.”

— Source: Twitter.



Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and former SAGE member:

Focus now needs to be on maintaining key public health interventions alongside vaccines, and developing and ensuring equitable access to new treatments and strengthening the supply chains for PPE and oxygen. Stopping the spread will help to break the constant and unsustainable cycle of reacting to new variants.

The single biggest lesson from this pandemic is to act early, decisively and globally to prevent problems becoming much bigger.

“In the absence of clarity of public health measures, please:
1/ Get fully vaccinated
2/ Wear mask in public indoor places and transport
3/ If symptoms OR a positive LFT test avoid mixing with others
4/ Support for people who cannot work/in education.

“If not with all public health measures lifted, existing high levels infection, very transmissible evolving virus, infections will remain very high, people will need time off work/education, some will need hospitalisation, some will die. Such high transmission increases the risk of new variants.

“Lifting all public health measures when levels of infection were so high when lifted will prolong this wave, damage health, damage opportunities, damage education and the economy. We have the tools: vaccines, drugs and proven public health measures to reduce transmission. But we have to use them all.”

— Source: The Guardian & Twitter.



Dr Tom Frieden, US Infectious Disease and Public Health Physician, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives:

“Rising cases in Europe, the toll Omicron is taking on unvaccinated elderly people in Hong Kong and slowing vaccinations are warnings that another COVID wave is likely approaching the US. But we are by no means helpless. We can prepare better, save lives and reduce disruption.

As COVID continues to adapt, our response needs to adapt along with it.”

— Source: Twitter.

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Question: WHAT ABOUT THE NEXT VARIANT?

COVID cases are increasing again in the UK and the rest of Europe. Is there a risk that a new variant could suddenly show up?

What the experts say...


Professor Andrew Rambault, Professor of Molecular Evolution, Viral Evolution Researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Member of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biological Sciences:

“I think it is inevitable that we will see new variants with varying degrees of immune evasion.

They could emerge from wherever there is widespread transmission.”

— Source: Nature.



Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, COVID-19 Technical Lead, World Health Organization:

“What happens when we allow the virus to circulate at such an intense level.

The virus continues to evolve and more variants are expected. Recombinants are also expected… as we have been explaining for a very long time.

Vaccines AND, not vaccines only.”

— Source: Twitter.

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Question: COVID ABSENCES IN SCHOOLS HAS TRIPLED IN A FORTNIGHT, WHAT IS GOING ON?

New Department for Education (DfE) figures show that 202,000 pupils were off school on 17 March because of COVID-19, up from 58,000 two weeks earlier, and increasing absence among school staff too, with almost one in 10 teachers and schools leaders (9.1%) absent – 48,000 teachers and 60,000 teaching assistants off – and schools struggling to secure supply cover. All this is happening while barely any primary-aged children have been vaccinated, and only a quarter of 12 to 15-year-olds have received a second dose.

🧾
“We estimate 2.5% (202,000) of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for COVID-19 related reasons on 17 Mar, up from 0.7% (58,000) on 3 Mar.”Department for Education, 22 March 2022.

What the experts say...


Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT):

“COVID cases have been spiking again in many schools over the past week or so – in line with the rising numbers nationally.

“Staff absence is once again a big concern – this data shows nearly one in 10 teachers and school leaders absent, which is as bad as the very start of term.

Many schools are reporting that it is near impossible to find supply staff to cover and there is no doubt that this level of disruption has a negative impact on pupils. Right now, many school leaders are facing a huge challenge when it comes to maintaining educational provision.

“With exams looming for many students this is a very worrying time.

More disruption now could be seriously damaging to pupils’ exam chances and education recovery.

“The government urgently needs to remind people that just because the legal requirement to isolate has been removed, there is still a duty to take appropriate action to reduce the spread of COVID – just like any other illness.

Parents need to be clear on when they can send their children to school and when they need to stay at home.

Removing free access to lateral flow tests at this point feels irresponsible. It will make tracking and controlling COVID almost impossible. There is a lot of anxiety from school leaders about what could happen once tests are unavailable.

The government cannot just let COVID rip through schools. Learners need and deserve better than that.

COVID hasn’t gone away and we need a proper plan for how to live with it long-term that is focused on keeping levels low and reducing disruption.”

— Source: Northants Telegraph.



Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London:

“We have had the same number of deaths involving COVID-19 (COVID-19 on the death certificate) in 0-19-year-olds in England and Wales in just 3 months in this year as we had in all of 2020. Tell me again how children don’t need protection because the pandemic is over.

“Omicron: unprecedented levels of infection in children – no mitigations and the vast majority unvaccinated. All predictable.”

— Source: Twitter.



Professor Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research, Clinical Operational Research Unit, University College London. Member of Independent SAGE:

“Last week I highlighted that cases in kids were rising rapidly again – less than 90 days after the massive January surge. This week the Department for Education released the latest school disruption data.

“We saw that the half-term following the January peak decline resulted in thankfully very few kids off in early March.

“But this has massively increased in the last few weeks – more than tripled since early March – both primary and secondary.

We are also seeing rapid increases in the number of teachers off school (for any reason) – back up to levels last seen in January with 9% of staff absent.

We must not pretend that these frequent school waves are not causing a LOT of educational disruption. #MakeSchoolsSafer.”

— Source: Twitter.



Dr Stephen Griffin, Virologist at the University of Leeds, guest member of Independent SAGE:

I just don’t understand what the lack of urgency and the complacency is.

“The BA.2 variant is surging across Europe, and kids are still going to be at school through to the summer.”

— Source: The Guardian.



Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor & Chair of Global Public Health at the Edinburgh University Medical School:

One of the biggest mistakes the UK made in mid-2021/2022 was delaying in vaccinating the 5 to 11-year-olds. Letting kids just get infected (often twice) – when a safe and effective vaccine was available and widely used in the States – was a bad decision. It caused preventable illness and time off school.”

— Source: Twitter.

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Question: WHAT ABOUT LONG COVID?

Health experts are warning that Long COVID could create a generation affected by disability.

What the experts say...


Professor Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Immunology and Inflammation, Imperial College London:

“It’s kind of an anathema to me that we’ve kind of thrown in the towel on control of Omicron wave infections and have said ‘it’s endemic, and we don’t care any more, because it’s very benign’.

“It just isn’t. And there are new people joining the long COVID support groups all the time with their disabilities. It’s really not OK, and it’s heartbreaking.

“This is a global problem. We’ve got at least 5 million people on the planet with long COVID – [that is] very much a lower limit estimate. And they’ve all got a wide array of problems and they are big problems. It’s going to drive people out of housing, out of work and in some cases, to suicide.

“We’ve kind of paid lip service to it, and not really taken it sufficiently seriously.

You can’t just shut your eyes and turn away and say I’ve lost interest and it’s not a problem to me anymore. Because the virus calls you out on that.”

— Source: The Guardian



Professor Brendan Crabb, Australian Microbiologist, Research Scientist and Director, Chief Executive Officer of the Burnet Institute:

“So many people are shocked at how sick they are with a normal acute case of COVID. Many will be utterly stunned when they discover Long COVID – how pernicious and frequent it is. Reducing every day so-called ‘mild’ cases matters a lot – Vaccines Plus does this.”

— Source: Twitter.

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Question: MISINFORMATION DURING THE PANDEMIC

What the experts say...


Dr Dan Goyal, Medic, Internist, Academic:

“I know there are many lessons COVID has taught and continues to teach us, but I never thought one of the biggest lessons would be just how deadly and devastating misinformation can be.”

— Source: Twitter.




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  • Text: This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 27 March 2022.
  • Cover: Adobe Stock/freshidea.